At the end of the day, the 1990s were actually a pretty good decade for film. When you put the best in aggregate, the list is pretty powerful: The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, JFK, GoodFellas, Hoop Dreams, Ace Ventura. On many days, I’d personally put Shawshank atop my list for the decade – but then on some other days, it’s that darn talking pig movie. This came back this past weekend at the parents’ house, when Chris Noonan’s treasure Babe appeared – and as always its spell captures me. It’s amazing it has been fifteen years since it appeared on the scene. In a lot of ways it has more in common with movies like Groundhog Day and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – seemingly basic entertainment that has had remarkable durability over time.
The film, as everybody knows, is about a pig who is spared a trip to a “far away place” by the good fortune of being a runt. The narration observes that pigs in the farm think this is a sort of piggy paradise (they are right in a sense, but probably not in the way they think). The narration throughout has a satiric spin that keeps the movie from being overly soppy – and frankly keeps it from being just another insipid “family entertainment”. In another section, when the sheepdog addresses the sheep, the narrator intones “It was a widely known fact that sheep are stupid.” and then in the next instance (the sheep’s reply) “It was a widely known fact that all wolves [the sheep term for dogs] were ignorant.” In the fashion of Shrek or The Princess Bride, while amusing children, the film does not skimp on its grown up viewers.
However, while the cheeky satire is there underneath – at its most basic level Babe is all heart. It all starts with the character of Babe himself. From the time he is rescued by Farmer Hoggett, to his indoctrination on the farm – Babe is an absolutely winning, loveable hero – the classic protagonists of Disney could do no better. From his touching aloneness to his being adopted by Hoggett’s sheepdog to Babe’s eventual wish to become a sheepdog himself, Babe survives and succeeds in the farm’s animal culture on sheer pluck and just being friendly and true. His relationships with the incredibly rich array of fellow animals gives Noonan the chance to paint a gallery of truly funny characters. This entire universe of course is pure fantasy, but when you combine the personality and writing that go into the animal characters and the technical marvel combining animation and muppets with real animals – the communication becomes totally natural. For a couple of hours, yeah – the animals DO offer this sort of sophistication and wit – like any good fantasy universe, it all makes sense.
Finally an appreciation of the movie cannot be completed without a nod to the human actors. James Cromwell, one of the consummate “that guy in that movie/show” of the past thirty years, has the hardest job of all. As is the case with all real life-animation combinations, so often he is acting against nothing by eye-line markers. Take that along with the family friendly nature of the film, and it is practically begging for a hammy overacting performance. But Cromwell’s Farmer Hoggett is completely convincing throughout. His awareness of the pig and his intuition that the pig just might be the best shepherd he can think of – Cromwell makes it all completely plausible, and never condescending. His best supporting actor Oscar nomination for the role was completely just. Babe has survived fifteen years as a superior film entertainment – and to predict its timelessness is just all too obvious.